Auschwitz death camp survivor Jadwiga Bogucka holds a picture of herself from 1944 in Warsaw.
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL / REUTERS)
There are many reasons to oppose a bill passed by the Polish Parliament on Friday that seeks to punish anyone who uses the term “Polish death camps” or blames Poland for committing crimes during the Holocaust.
On the most basic level, any legislation that seeks to fine or imprison a person for saying or writing something is an affront to the freedom of expression. It creates an atmosphere of fear, stifles open debate and prevents the truth from being uncovered.
Censoring speech also puts undue power in the hands of those who must police and enforce speech. Inevitably these will be nationalists with an ideological ax to grind who are out to protect Polish honor.
We would have thought that the people of a country like Poland that experienced the horror of living under two totalitarian regimes – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – would know better than to resort to oppressive measures to restrict freedom of speech.
The fact is that Polish people aided and abetted the Nazis during the Holocaust, often out of deep antisemitic convictions. No amount of legislation passed in the Sejm will change this fact. The only goal that will be achieved by the Polish Parliament’s bill will be to stifle Holocaust research inside Poland and, as Yad Vashem noted, “blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”
There is no denying the suffering of the Polish people during the Second World War. As noted by military historian Victor Davis Hanson in his recently published book, The Second World Wars, Poland alone lost more of its citizens than all the Western European nations, Britain and the United States combined. Poland suffered the highest percentage of fatalities (over 16%) of a prewar population of any participant of the Second World War. Between 5.6 million and 5.8 million Poles died.
However, the uniqueness of Polish suffering is inseparable from the unique suffering of Poland’s Jews, who made up 10% of the total population, or around 3.5 million, at the start of the war. By the end of the war, only around 100,000 Polish Jews remained alive. Well over half of all Poles who were killed during the war were Jewish.
So while the entire Polish people were the victims of both Nazi and Soviet barbarism (the two countries split Poland between them on October 6, 1939) their suffering pales in comparison to the atrocities committed against the Jews.
Poland was the foremost laboratory of Nazi barbarity.
Some 450 German extermination, concentration, labor and prisoner-of-war camps were set up on Polish soil. It was both the first country to be attacked by Hitler and the first to have its citizens, both Jews and Slavs, targeted for mass extinction. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka – the six most infamous concentration camps of the Holocaust – were all built by the Nazis in Poland.
Of course, many Poles fought the Nazis, particularly after June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. And there are numerous incidents in which Poles risked their own lives to save Jews. Indeed, Poland capitulated to Nazi Germany but never signed a formal surrender.
It is also true that the Nazis had an easier time carrying out the Holocaust in Poland and Russia than in Western Europe. Jews in the East were far more numerous; less likely to have the economic means to help them escape; tended to live in shtetlach (villages); and because most were Orthodox, were visibly Jewish.
But it is also true that before and during the war, deep-seated hatred of the Jews was common in Poland.
And many Poles collaborated with the Nazis to help them find and capture Jews who attempted to escape.
It is therefore ridiculous for the Polish government to attempt to whitewash history and erase the role the Polish people played in helping the Nazis persecute Jews.
It also worrying that such a bill, put forward by Poland’s right-wing government, is so popular among Poles, as though Polish honor is somehow dependent on promulgating lies.
The leaders and citizens of the State of Israel, created in the aftermath of the Holocaust, have a moral obligation to speak out against attempts to stifle free debate about the Holocaust or to rewrite history. We will not be silent.